The Happiness Experiment
At AttentionBy Michelle Burford
I have tried to meditate. It didn't work. So when I took the assignment to test a form of meditation called mindfulness—and let the record reflect that I only agreed because there's now proof the practice can send one's happiness quotient screaming toward Pluto—I'd already resolved that I would once again walk away markedly unchanged. I was wrong.
The science that lured me was the study by Richard Davidson, PhD, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in which mindfulness meditation caused the brains of biotech workers to light up where the happiness regions are. Kabat-Zinn led me to Polly Wheat, MD, an internist who founded the mindfulness program at Barnard College in New York.
I join her mindfulness course—she meets with about 20 students on Wednesday nights for eight weeks—during session five. Only a few minutes into the two-hour gathering (and only ten minutes into the sugar high I've given myself by chain-inhaling 14 Jolly Ranchers on the way), along comes the experience I am prepared to suffer through: sitting. "Relax your neck and shoulders, balance your head...," Wheat instructs as I rearrange myself in my chair.
Minute one: My abdomen aches. I bet these people are faking it. Why am I doing this? Minute seven: Did I miss the part in the mindfulness manual that reads "Caution: This approach may not work on black people or endomorphs?" Minute 15: Did I TiVo Survivor? Why is my jaw tight? Thank God, she's finally ringing the bell!
After class I get straight with Wheat: Zilch happened to me during our time of silence. I got nowhere. It was like browsing through Bloomingdale's with no ka-ching.
"There's nowhere to get!" she says with a smile. "The paradox of living mindfully is that the best way to get there is to fully be here."
Two hours of hand-wringing later, I finally translate her meditation-speak into my native tongue. Mindfulness is basically this: Open your eyeballs to life. Clear your eardrums of interference. Give every single joy and annoyance in your day—be it a scrumptious Belgian waffle sliding down your esophagus or spam spilling over the sides of your e-mail in-box—your maximum attention. Stay out of the bike lanes marked "yesterday" and "tomorrow" and pop your wheelies in the present. Then hang this sign on the front porch of your brain: "No blaming, judging, and belittling allowed here." Life is happening in every breath. Wake up and notice it.
A day later, I try one of her homework assignments. Sitting on my couch, I utter a litany of thank-yous for the gazillion people in my world who lend me light and even for a few who don't. This is supposed to take 15 minutes, but I finish in only one minute and 17 seconds. Instead of galloping back to work, though, I sit it out to see what other thoughts show up. After six minutes, a familiar tide of anxiety rolls in: What if I'm more terrified of what I can accomplish during my lifetime than of what I can't? What if my big plans fizzle into big flops?
The next time I see Wheat, I press for answers: What does all this sitting have to do with mindful living? And will my brain light up if I don't meditate formally? "Everything can be a meditation when it's done with our full attention," she says. "In our society, we're constantly being pulled into the next moment. Sitting helps you practice mindfulness in a protected area. It's the same idea as playing scales on your piano at home so you can perform Beethoven's 'Appassionata' at Carnegie Hall." When I mention my episode of meditation angst, she explains that mindfulness isn't about zapping unpleasant thoughts. It's about getting still long enough to notice that you're having them. And in that space between pain and acknowledgment lives a choice. To let the anxiety grip you or to consciously dismiss it. To pout about where you could be or to accept where you are. To live in a state of constant cardiac arrest or simply to breathe your way through every second.
Wheat gives me more homework, all explained in a bulging green folder that, once back at my apartment, I pitch into my sock drawer. And there it might've stayed forever—except for the evening, three days after my third class, when a close friend called with a sentence that knocked us both to our knees: "I don't want to live." I listened. I wept. I called in help. And when I'd reached the final paragraph of my best pep talk, I dug out that file.
If it's true that we teach best what we need to learn most, I'm now well qualified to pass on the one principle of mindfulness that saved both my friend and me: You don't have to Windex your big mess the moment that you splatter it. Just get up and step to the right. Stand there. Notice how your feet feel on the ground. Notice that you're still aboveground. Take that news in. Or resist it and settle into your misery, then notice that's what you're doing. Decide you won't judge yourself for judging yourself. Judge yourself some more, then cut it out again. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Oh, relax: I'm in no danger of becoming a We Are the World tree hugger just because I finished the course so enthusiastically. I even—voluntarily—did an 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. silent solo retreat Wheat designed for me (it included listening to a guided meditation CD, taking a mindful walk and eating a mindful meal, a little yoga, and a ton of sitting). And hold on to your bra straps for this: I've actually been meditating every morning for 20 minutes.
I don't need a brain scan to know that an old Roberta Flack hit now makes my scalp tingle with exhilaration, that the feel of my favorite silk-mohair sweater now counts as a big enough reason to celebrate. When stressful thoughts flood my head these days, I stop, thank them for passing through, then keep stepping. And in the front right bedroom of my brain where constant judgment once resided, the newly freed space is a welcome spot for joy.
Next: How risk-taking can increase your joy